Nuclear weapons brought me to Rotary. Some years ago I was invited to give a talk, a rough version of this very article. I had all the usual stereotypes in my head—Rotarians were stiff, mostly male, prone to empty ritual. I was nervous about how a controversial subject might go over. To my surprise, the audience was friendly, respectful and curious. Within a few weeks I had joined Rotary and began to know some of the most generous-spirited, creative and fun-loving men and woman I have encountered in a long lifetime.
I am a child of the atomic age, born in 1941. As the bombs annihilated two Japanese cities, my father was training to become a translator as part of the anticipated final invasion, which, in the standard historical interpretation, suddenly became unnecessary.
People in my demographic have been living all their conscious lives with the threat of nuclear war as a kind of low-level background noise—a noise which rose to a roar at key moments, like the week of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. Especially disconcerting over the decades has been the distance between ordinary citizens and the seemingly unstoppable momentum of the arms race.
In 1984, I was moved to join a group that was determined to make a real difference. We arranged for a group of Soviet and American scientists to meet at a retreat center in California and work together on a set of papers on accidental nuclear war. The result was not only the first book published simultaneously in the Soviet Union and the United States, but enduring friendships among the participating scientists. Gorbachev read the book. Perhaps our initiative even played a minor role in ending a fifty-year era of tension.
Sadly, former Secretary of Defense William Perry asserts that, given the complexity of defense systems and the possibility of error, nuclear war is more likely today than at the height of the Cold War. In the midst of all our other planetary challenges, that is an especially harsh reality to get our minds around.
Equally hard to comprehend is how bizarre a system we have evolved to keep ourselves safe. Imagine we are an alien from another planet checking in on Earth’s progress. Leaders of our most powerful nations are accompanied everywhere by an attendant with a suitcase full of codes capable of unleashing sufficient power to destroy everything.
In the mother of all paradoxes, in order to be sure they are never used, everyone’s weapons must be kept ready for instant use. No misinterpretations or mistakes are allowed—forever. The message of inevitable breakdown, even if rare, in technologically complex systems—Challenger, Chernobyl, 737-Max 8s—must be uneasily ignored. Meanwhile this deterrence system prevented neither the horror of 9-11, nor the Russian invasion of Crimea, just to name two salient examples.
But the oddity of the deterrence system doesn’t end there. We have known for decades that the detonation of even a small number of the weapons could cause nuclear winter. Which means that in even a limited nuclear war without any retaliatory response, victory would dissolve into suicide. This is our security system. It is meant, with the best of intentions, to prevent a third global war. But close examination yields the reality that it is only postponing such a war, as we go about our business and try not to think about the sword hanging over our collective heads.
With the Coronus pandemic, the planet has received a further incentive to think freshly about our systems and values. The analogy with nuclear catastrophe is inescapable. We knew it could happen but we just didn’t believe it really would. We were unprepared. Medical systems worldwide were overwhelmed, as they would be in a nuclear war—if medical systems still existed at all.
In the early 19th century, chattel slavery in the U.S. seemed psychologically, economically and politically immovable. While change necessitated a tragically bloody civil war, equally essential were men and women committed to bringing about a paradigm shift in what it meant to be a moral person subject to the constitutional right of equality.
Today, it is hard for me to see how Rotary, with its power of numbers, resources and good will, can stand entirely aside from the nuclear challenge. Yes, there are complex questions about why we might want to stay out of the fray—unless we imagine what we might have done if we had been 1.2 million people worldwide confronting the ethical contradictions of slavery in 1850.
I am deeply convinced that there is an answer to the nuclear conundrum. It is contained in the model supplied by the scientists from two adversarial nations coming to a common understanding of the dangers of accidental nuclear war—a very Rotary-like initiative.
The world needs to get behind a U.N.-sponsored permanent international conference of stakeholders to work on reciprocal, verifiable reductions in nuclear arsenals. The bi-partisan Nunn-Lugar Nuclear Threat Reduction Initiative provides an instructive model: as the Soviet Union dissolved, this astonishing program was able to reduce the number of deployed warheads in places like the Ukraine by 7000—almost half the number of nuclear weapons deployed today!
The paradigm of how the world thinks about security is changing. Kissinger, Nunn, Shultz and Perry have sensibly asserted the strategic uselessness of nuclear weapons and called for their abolition. And so have the ever-increasing number of nations that have signed the 2017 United Nations Treaty Outlawing Nuclear Weapons. As people committed to peacebuilding and all the issues crucial to peacebuilding in our areas of focus, it is time for us Rotarians to start “living the questions,” as the poet Rilke put it, around Rotary’s potential involvement, whatever form it might take, in the issue of nuclear abolition. The eradication of polio once seemed impossible. But as Nelson Mandela said, “it always seems impossible, until it’s done.”